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How to Redefine Yourself and Boost Your Self-Esteem

11/27/2014 06:20 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST

You know that scene in Pretty Woman, where Vivian and Edward are lying in bed, sharing secrets, and Vivian says that when, "People put you down enough, you start to believe it"? When Edward tries to make her feel better by telling her that she is a "very special woman," Vivian points out, "The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?"

I've noticed that. I don't believe I was bullied or emotionally abused when I was a kid but, like everyone else, I was labeled. I continue to carry those words with me: "fat", "ugly", "lazy", "worthless". My one positive attribute was my smarts, and I owned being smart. I shaped myself into the female equivalent of Anthony Michael Hall's character in The Breakfast Club: a dorky loner who was thrilled when she got her first pair of prescription eyeglasses. I held that dorkiness close and I never let go.

Pop culture fed into my insecurities. In particular, one book (the racy teen novel Yearbook by David Marlowe); and one movie (Dogfight starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor) continue to haunt me. In Yearbook, Amy is extremely bright but also, "a girl whose hair was not just curly, but kinky; a complexion not just troubled by acne, but riddled; teeth not just crooked, but wired top to bottom ... [and a nose that was] a regular baked potato." Amy falls for Corky, the handsome high school quarterback. At one point, Corky pops into the diner where Amy is chatting with Guy, a mutual friend. When Amy rushes off to comb her hair and reapply her lipstick, Guy leaves with Corky even while thinking, "[Amy's] going to kill me ... She'll come out of the bathroom looking her worst best, [and] neither of us will be there ..." I first read this book in Grade 6 and that exact phrase, "worst best," utterly shaped me. What would be the point of wearing makeup, contacts, and figure-hugging clothing? I would still be ugly. People would see right through my façade, and know that I was an impostor. I didn't have acne and my nose was smaller, but I identified strongly with Amy, the ugly smart girl, who tried so hard to look her "worst best," and got left behind anyway.

In Dogfight, Phoenix gives one of his best performances as Eddie Birdlace, a young Marine who, with his friends, is engaged in a "dogfight": everyone puts in 50 bucks, and the guy with the ugliest date wins. Eddie has little luck finding a "suitable" girl until he stumbles over with Taylor's character, Rose, in a café. Rose is sweet and forthright; and really, although she has wild hair, a sad wardrobe, and an affinity for folk music, she is not unattractive. I rewatched Dogfight recently, at the age of 43. I still had to look away from the screen at times. My heart still hurt. I still identified too strongly with Rose.

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Photo from Dogfight DVD cover.

Why do we continue to carry these hurts for so long? As it turns out, our brains actually have a negative bias. Negativity creates a greater electrical surge in our brains than positivity does, and so negativity has a bigger and longer-lasting impact on us. Psychology Today explains that because of this negativity bias, we require five times more positivity than negativity, in order for the positive to outweigh the negative. Five times! It's the frequency of positivity that matters, rather than the intensity. Frequent positive experiences will lead us towards happiness.

I'm grateful that I've always had friends and family who saw the best in me, and told me so. But within the last few years, I fell into a group of friends where positivity is abundant, and I seem to be reaching the threshold of five times more positivity than negativity. There is no one in my life -- and there hasn't been for years -- who calls me "fat" or "ugly" or "worthless." In fact, I recently attended a black tie event where I was told that I looked "gorgeous" and "beautiful;" and that I was the "prettiest girl" there. Me! I can't explain how overwhelming this was for me. It made me reevaluate what I know about myself.

I went back and skimmed through my friends' Facebook posts and picked out the words I most wanted to believe about myself. I decided to turn these words into a piece of artwork that I could look at every day, and use as affirmations. The key for me is that these are words applied to me by other people; I am not simply willing myself to believe what I want to believe. I can drown out my negative inner voice by pointing out that someone else already believes that about me. I printed the same word over and over on a single piece of scrapbooking paper; and then shaped each sheet of paper into a flower blossom, using the templates at elli.com. I like the analogy of words to blossoming flowers, things of beauty that will flourish with time and care. I also like the idea that I am building my own garden, and have control of which words have a chance to blossom, and which ones will get a hefty dose of herbicide. And hopefully, while I'm working on my garden, I will have a chance to realize Lao Tzu's sage advice: "When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."

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